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March 1, 2017

How much dance can one watch in a month?
For yours truly, it becomes difficult to attend shows more than 4 times a week, since feelings and images blur and bleed into one another and the distinct memories and architecture of each performance dissolves to leave one large incomprehensible stain. February was one such month. So much dancing, rehearsals, touring, watching.... the year's shortest month flew by.

February also gave me the opportunity to be a part of a dramatically diverse swathe of dance experiences. Erotica, arangetrams, doom as personal diary, the evergreen Krishna as protagonist, an outdoor performance in an open maidan, day long immersion seminars, clueless university professors - I was thrown into the thick of them all!


How does one respond when someone in the Chennai Madras University classroom says that they have ‘NEVER’ heard of the Ramayana? Yes, this professor was not Hindu but he was from Tamilnadu, in his forties and teaching in a university in a fairy large town in the state. The occasion was my 3 hour graduate seminar titled GENDER AND PERFORMANCE. The audience was teachers of various specialities from Physics, Maths, Geography, History, English, Women's Studies, Tamizh, Sociology and Psychology. Using my template of mythology, movement, poetry, rhythm syncopation, life experience and politics as the lens, I had crafted a three part session. In most part the group of teachers was attentive and appreciative. However, when it came time for the open discussion, the level of curiosity was abysmal. Questions became paragraphs of personal self indulgence and comments revealed a dismal lack of basic knowledge of the arts as part of HUMANITIES curricula! I left feeling depressed at the woeful standards of education in my state, where the Tamizh politicians beat their chests about “mother tongue” while sending their children to American schools to learn English with the slang!


To combat my dismay, the city of Mumbai gave me the tonic I was looking for. The outdoor/multidisciplinary KALA GHODA ARTS FESTIVAL was a stunning success by the diversity and the turnout. The large open air maidan in the heart of South Mumbai was filled with interested rasikas who sat patiently through the long evenings of multiple dance performances. Curated by the bubbly Anonna Guha - an ebullient Kathak dancer - the performing arts roster contained folk, classical, contemporary and ensemble presentations. My group performed PADME in a triple bill that included Marathi Lavani and Anonna’s Kathak ensemble. Despite many food and product sales encircling the performance area, the audience was attentive and not fidgety. The demographic was mainly under 40 and nobody stood up or rushed towards the stage for photos. Thank you, Mumbai - you continue to prove how special a city you are!

Rehearsals were held at the modest studio of Bharatanatyam dancer Vaibhav Arekar. We met many young artistes and their interest in the PADME project through questions and discussions proved how interested they were in exploring ideas and possibilities in the dance world. The dilemma of the young dancer in India today is like being caught in the centre of a global debate. The extreme right (classical dance) is not interested in globalisation or interconnectivity. The liberal left (contemporary dance) is all about intersectionality and collaboration. The centrist believes that neither of the extreme positions is useful and raising their voices - much like the wakeup call of citizens in the democratic countries. In dance as in society, one must allow this ferment to take its course.

There was no confusion, however, with QUEEN SIZE. Billed as a choreographic response to article 377 that criminalises homosexuality in India, this two man, Mandeep Raikhy choreographed heart rate pounding, skin bristling performance was in one word EROTIC. A closed stage, attentive audiences seated barely 2 feet from the centrepiece bed with performers Lalit Khatana and Parinay Mehra who were fully focused on the various sets of choreographic “movements”- was like a quiet invitation into their “bedroom”. It confronted my inner prejudices and made me examine the discomfort I felt at many moments, while several people left and entered in this “looped” presentation that lasted over 2 hours.  At Chandralekha's SPACES, there was a small window through which we could peek into the dark space before being allowed to enter. Was this a way to watch without getting involved? Was the 5 minute loop also to give us an escape route? QUEEN SIZE was both deeply moving and disturbing. I am very proud of the Chennai audience that came, sat, watched and wept. Beautifully mounted with wine glasses gleaming overhead and a hypnotic sound design, QUEEN SIZE was a cathartic experience for many. For Mandeep and his team, it was a testament to the viewing “stamina” of the city, used to long hours of listening to music and watching the classical arts with attention and interest.


The previous day, NYC storyteller Regina Ress shared some beautiful tales from Sweden,  Ireland and Bali. The small group of friends - mostly women - who gathered at my outdoor studio were rapt in attention and generous in applause. However, even though I announced QUEEN SIZE as being performed the very next day, not a single person attended the second event. So is this about middle class morality or do we have the freedom to say “I don't wish to watch something so personal.” Somehow, the left liberals have made it their mantra to brand anyone who chooses to walk out or be absent as "right wing" or "hypocrites". It is the same attitude that permeates the dance community. Hate, prejudice is everywhere. Classical and contemporary dancers are not in dialogue and are often in opposition. In the name of "aesthetics", "beauty" and "rasa", classical artistes shun any shift from the status quo of safe emotions. Disappointing!


To make my February more surreal was a weekend of the banal and the bizarre. I was coralled into being a chief guest at an Arangetram - Correction- a SALANGAI POOJA. Different name- same torture! Just say that I could not say NO.  It was the daughter of my accountant! So drop those eyebrows please!

What was unveiled was a parade and a charade. In a very clever event planning, the group ‘Salangai Pooja’ had 14 students on stage. Each student walked on with their entire family- parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives and watched while the guru tied the bells onto the young feet. Adoring selfies, photo ops, posing and smiling were duly captured. Then the next and the next. After this was completed, the dance began. In batches of 7. The choreography was adeptly designed to ensure that each of the 7 occupied centre stage at one time or another, making the respective parent rush to the stage and take photos/videos on their phones, while blithely blocking the view of yours truly! Actually, I was relieved!

Each parent spent over 1 lakh rupees for their precious darling to get this opportunity. With a post performance dinner feast laid out soon after, we can calculate the profits tucked away by the guru! What a great business model this is! And what a giant headache I returned home with!

More and more dancers are grumbling about not being credited for the work they do for their gurus. Large ensemble presentations of dance schools involve many students and several inputs. It is the duty of the gurus to properly acknowledge the contribution of their students with the appropriate credit. It is here that most gurus, often performing artistes themselves, fail to realize this contribution. There have been cases of students and dancers protesting and threatening legal action in UK and USA against the choreographer for lack of credit in the program notes. In the case of a guru whose students have been learning for about a decade, the attitude is mostly taking the student's choreographic ideas for granted and, worse still, appropriating the ideas as their own. The argument can always be a feudal one. “She is my student and I have taught her everything she knows, so what she says is also due to me!” My answer to these complaints always is - Write it down via an email. This way a communication thread is established. That becomes proof of your intention and then you have a choice to proceed depending on what the response is. Keeping silent and complaining on the side gets you nowhere. As for the guru - how does it diminish your reputation if you include the names of those who have helped shape the work? It only enhances your sense of inclusivity! You are not and never will be a SWAYAMBHU (self created and self aware!).


Dr. Saskia Kersenboom

The very next day I helmed a daylong session on the history and development of Sadir / Bharatanatyam at the scenic DAKSHINACHITRA Museum outside Chennai. Curated by Uma Ganesan and musician Savitha Narasimhan, it was envisioned to attract students, rasikas and citizens interested in a deeper engagement with the form and its complex history. Starting with students of Sudharani Raghupathy in a mock dance class, senior dancer Priya Murle conducted the session with the basic building blocks of a class in progress. From the sounds of the wooden stick on the wooden board, the short dance sari, the "adavu" system and the construction of dance phrases, the first session was a window into the here and now of Bharatanatyam. It was followed by a deeply introspective talk by Dr. Saskia Kersenboom on her experiences and research into the practice of a traditional dancer Ranganayaki of Tiruvarur. Titled ENTA PRAYOGAM? (What Performance? The word PRAYOGAM has many meanings including the possibility of ‘OF WHAT USE?’) Dr. Kersenboom illuminated the complex and demanding roles and exalted position of the Devadasi in temple, court and society- linking her with the three worlds as well as the three sections of society. Her talk was an eye opener for many young Bharatanatyam students assembled there.

Swarnamalya Ganesh

Dr. Swarnamalya Ganesh livened up the post lunch session with a cascade of excerpts from her traditional repertoire using many languages and movements drawn from the presence of the Muslim and British rulers of the times. Salaam, Salute, Adaab were all used freely and easily without fuss or furore.


I was left with many questions at the end of a very long day. Is there genuine interest in dance history? Is there any mind space to widen and soften falsely held stances about Devadasis and Caste in modern India? Is there any point to these sessions that end up with mixed audiences and throwing off the presenter/producer from creating deeper discussions and raising difficult questions? Is historicity important or are we romanticising the devadasi needlessly? How does modern feminism align with these facts and events?


Photo: Narayana Sankar
My 2010 production of A MILLION SITAS has continued to enjoy a small and faithful following, with performances being invited each year. Last month at the Pondicherry Heritage Festival and for the REMEMBERING VEENAPANI festival, the work morphed into two different personalities over 2 consecutive days. One in a garden and the other in a closed theatre. Telling Sita’s story through the eyes of four other women in the Ramayana has urged me to examine the script each time I share it. Performing for a large group of non Indians always alerts me to not take too many things for granted. However, there is a cultural memory of this iconic epic that never fails to find modern resonances with audiences. Women and men are always moved by the telling, often wiping away tears in full view of others. Yet, there are murmurs from some areas who are suggesting I change the title and remove the word SITA from it. Four simple letters and such fear! As A MILLION SITAS marches towards its 25th show this year, I anticipate much adventure ahead with a woman whose persona has morphed from myth to legend to icon to trope and is now a metaphor!


Does a dancer wear two faces? Don't we all? FACADE by Singapore based Bharatanatyam dancer Neewin Hershall left many of us confused. Using film, personal diary, dance and theatre, Neewin wove a fictitious story of a dancer whose personal life was unravelling and finally affecting his professional attitude on stage. Infidelity, remorse, regret, anger, frustration were all part of the emotional arc that had me asking, “Is this autobiographical? Is this his own story?” The dancing portions were not done full out to contrast with the bleakness of his off stage life. In the end, the filmed scenes of death did not clearly represent either the end of life or art. What did emerge from the silent audience was an evening that refused to relent in its sense of doom. And that was the STHAYI BHAVA of the work. No hope. And that was disturbing for many.


In contrast, Chitra Dasarathy’s pleasing group choreography on Krishna - APARA- was filled with energetic and elegant dancing. With a cast of mature women in their 30s and 40s, Chitra has created a very demanding and stamina draining work based on all the attributes of Krishna from Bengal, Gujarat and other parts of India. The work needs a more varied pacing and a more compelling invocation of the Krishna aura. The admirable work felt over choreographed- as if the dancers were attempting to keep pace with Chitra's fertile imagination. I particularly liked the unusual foot patterns from sweeping floor arcs to single leg ballet-like "battues."


In spite of all that I watched in dance throughout February, no performance could compete with the sheer power of absurdity that flooded the mind screen and television screens of my home state in February in the field of politics. The death of my charismatic, and now convicted late Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, unleashed a chain of events that had every performing artiste around India stop rehearsing and stay glued to the news channels. One woman - VK Sasikala - against the citizens of the state threw all law and reason to the winds and staged a public performance of a kind never seen before. Her face contorted with rage and revenge, she thumped the marble mausoleum of her late mistress swearing revenge, staged brazen daylight kidnapping of politicians, disregarded the social media eruption with citizens’ protests, and continues to rule the state from her prison cell in neighbouring Bengaluru. Tamilnadu transformed into one giant stage where the macabre and malignant dashed all reason and objectivity against the stonewall of  corruption. Real life events became a thriller plot where all were consumed with anxiety and frustration! Dormant political views are being sharpened and developed in this ongoing resistance against the present government. As I write this, women are organizing peaceful sit-ins on weekends on the beach. This is real theatre where villains and heroes, citizens and politicians are locked in a bizarre dance!

Bharatanatyam became the visual metaphor of all the chaos that reigned in the state with social commentators using an unhinged Sasikala caricature performing BN!

And what about the mega show at ISHA YOGA CENTRE in Coimbatore where the unveiling of the mammoth statue of Siva occurred on Feb 24th-Mahasivaratri! What a spectacle! It was far removed from yoga, peaceful meditation and quietitude. It was a show for television audiences and again the might of celebrity and star power! Having been a regular at the centre for many years, the sheer scale of the event was like a giant De Mille or a Bahubali film set!

“Spectacle- Give us Spectacle” - Those were the words of a CEO with whom I was meeting for a celebration event at a city five star hotel. His only demands were to IMPRESS his foreign collaborators. Visual grandeur and splendour. A human dancing body cannot compete with giant 100 foot statues and technicolour blazer lights and fireworks. And yet, this is what is being demanded by Indian corporates in the name of culture. So here I am, putting on my producer’s hat and dreaming up such a spectacle for 10 minutes for fees that will fund the early stages of a new work!

March is International Women’s Day and month. For a change, I am moved by the large, silent majority of educated women who are speaking up against mafia ruled cities and demanding a conscience call from their elected representatives. Now I wish the dance community can stage such a protest against the poor and declining standards of dance festivals. Will we be able to demand higher standards and a more transparent accounting and fees from the sabhas? I did not see more than a handful of dancers expressing their opinions about the chaotic state of affairs that Tamil citizens were put through last month. For once, it is a wakeup call to all of us. Are we not citizens first and artistes next? Why are we not politically engaged at least in our opinions? Do we really think that Rama, Krishna and Kali will swoop in with a special "astra" and rescue us?

As you read this message, I will be in London and New York on very brief visits. There is certainly something strange in the air. Friends I am speaking to in both cities are concerned, angry and appalled about the upswing in intolerant behaviour and public violence. I prepare for a week long inter disciplinary engagement at HOPE LIVERPOOL UNIVERSITY in the UK under the umbrella of MILAPFEST. Facing students who have made a decision to embrace a creative life poses special challenges in our times. Are politicians and the media not paying attention to ground realities? How do we reconcile the horizon of the arts with the seething rage and chaotic behaviour we are seeing all around us? Are we waiting for a THUNDERCLAP MOMENT before we, the mostly narcissistic artistic community, decide to speak up?

Let me end on a positive note. The indefatigable Astad Deboo makes his Buckingham Palace appearance in a special reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II to mark the 70 years of friendship between India and the UK. Deboo also is part of the International Connections Fund grant program that will bring Natya Dance Theatre/Shirley Mordine company (Chicago) to India. Astad continues to inspire a generation of artistes with his relentless zeal and focus. Standing ovation richly deserved, my friend!

After watching British filmmaker Gurinder Chadda’s latest film VICEROY’S HOUSE, I am not too sure about cheering the Brits.  Ironic how we managed to show them the door and still fawn over royalty!
BTW- Aditi Mangaldas is also on the invitee list

March brings us brighter weather, World Theatre Day (March 27th), Holi (March13th), Lent (beginning with Ash Wednesday March 1st), Guru Nanak’s 549th Birth Anniversary (March 14th), Khorda Sal for Parsis (March 28th), Hanuman Jayanthi (March 31st). The Spring Equinox shifts on the 20th and the entire month celebrates the FEMININE. 

At the Oscars, American actress Viola Davis, winner of Best Supporting Actress gave an emotional speech about the lost stories and forgotten heroes. “Exhume those bodies. Tell their stories,” she urged. She went on to claim, “We are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life!” Call it Coastal Snobbery (a term describing the liberal minded residents of New York and California) but this is also a reminder to all of us in the live arts - dancers, actors, musicians - to...


Dr. Anita R Ratnam
New York / London / Liverpool / New Delhi / Kuala Lumpur

Twitter: @aratnam
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